Monday, August 20, 2012


            There was once a young girl who lived in the Redlands, within the province of Markath, which is down in the south where the vast, smooth plains give way to rocky hills and even a few mountains. The girl lived in a city situated high up on the tallest mountain in the province, a city called Usanith.
            At the time, there was a war. Markath was contending with their neighbor to the north, Janikath, as they had on and off for centuries. The girl’s father was killed, though she never learned how or where.
            Time passed, and the girl’s mother struggled to get by. The war was over – a stalemate with no winner, as it always was – but there was hardly any joy to be found in peace.
            The girl’s mother came to her one day and announced that a kind man had offered them a place to live. The girl did not understand why their house – the one her father had lived in with them – was so unsuitable now. Yet her mother refused to explain, and so they left to move in to the man’s house.
            The man often had long talks with her mother – though from the girl’s point of view, he did not let her speak very much. The girl could not understand what they were talking about, but he talked a lot about a war – though it was not one that she knew about. The war with Janikath was over. Her mother had been somewhat quiet ever since the soldiers came to tell her about the girl’s father. Yet now there was something different, and the mother hardly ever spoke to the girl.
            The man did, though. He would come in to her room, sometimes late at night, when she was supposed to be asleep. He would sit there for hours, and sometimes he would brush his hand through her hair. The girl would tell her mother about these visits, but her mother would only punish her for being a liar.
            And so it went for years.
            One day, the girl walked home from school. The rain had loosened the crumbling cobblestones, and the girl fell as one of them gave way on a steep slope. The knee in her pants leg was torn, and there was blood oozing from the cut. She held back her tears – the man always yelled at her when she cried too much – but it was difficult.
            “My poor dear, are you all right?” asked a bright, feminine voice. The girl looked up. The woman who had run up to her was beautiful, with a round face, wide eyes, and milk chocolate skin. The woman was wearing eye-shadow that was an iridescent purple, like the wing of a butterfly.
            “I…” she fought to speak – the flood of tears required all of her effort to dam. “I skinned my knee,” and then she began to cry, at a loss for control. The woman – this stranger she had never seen before, held her close and patted her on the back.
            “There, there, girl, there, there. Let’s get you inside and clean you up.”
            The woman led her into a nearby shop called Boulangerie Olanis. The girl had no idea what a boulangerie was, but the shop was filled with the smell of fresh bread and pastries. There was a man inside who looked very shocked. He was wearing a hood over his thick coat, so that his eyes were partially obscured.
            “What are you doing?” asked the man, whose high-pitch voice severely undercut the intimidating quality of the hood.
            The woman shook her head dismissively. “The girl needs a bandage. I’ll go fetch one. Meanwhile, give her a snickerdoodle.”
            The man shrugged and went around behind the counter. The woman was wearing an apron, but the man was not. The girl often found that she noticed things others would not, like the apron. The woman worked here, and was probably named Olanis. The man did not, but had to be a friend of the woman’s.
            The woman came back with a self-adhesive bandage and a bit of rubbing alcohol with a cloth. “This is going to sting a bit, but it’s good for you.” The woman dabbed some of the alcohol on the cloth and wiped the cut. It did sting, but not as much as the girl had been expecting.
            “I’m Ellie, by the way. Ellie Olanis. This is my bakery. Do you like it?”
            The girl nodded. It was a warm place, both in temperature and light. It was as if she had been transported away from all the dreariness of the rain swept city.
            Ellie looked up at the man, who had been munching on a nut-filled brownie. She cleared her throat. The man put down the brownie. “Sorry, they’re just very tempting,” he said.
            “What’s you name, dear?” asked Ellie. The girl frowned.
            “My mother told me not to tell strangers my name.”
            Both Ellie and the hooded man laughed. “A very sensible position. I understand better than you know.” She looked the girl up and down. “You know, I think you look like… a Tessa. So, Tessa, why were you in such a hurry to run down the road?”
            “It was raining.”
            “You don’t like to walk in the rain?”
            “My mom doesn’t like it when my clothes get wet.”
            Ellie nodded knowingly. She applied the bandage and stood up. “Well, I think you’re all patched up. You want another cookie for the road?”
            “Tessa” accepted it. Ellie waved as she left the shop.
            When she returned home, her mother was not there. The man said only that she was in the hospital, but he would not say why. Tessa retreated to her room and pushed the dresser up against the door. Sure enough, the man came knocking. He screamed at her foul words, and some she had never heard before. He pounded on the door, kicking and slamming, but she only braced herself against it. This went on for hours until finally, the man stopped and walked away.
            She sat there, bracing herself between the dresser and the bed. The sun had gone down, but she worried that if she got up to turn on the light, he would be able to break through.
            It was nearly pitch black. Tessa felt her eyelid drooping, and her head growing heavy. That was when she heard the bright voice of Ellie Olanis. “Tessa, my dear. Are you awake?”
            She looked up. Ellie was standing at the foot of her bed, holding a small, delicate lightbulb in her hand. The bulb was not attached to anything Tessa could see, and yet it glowed with a soft, warm light that reminded her of the bakery. She looked around. The window was still shut, and the door had not been opened. “How did you get in here?”
            “It’s a special trick that I learned from some friends of mine. Tessa, I’m afraid I have some very bad news. About your mother.”
            Tessa felt as if her blood were draining away. “She…” Then panic shot through her. All she had left now was the man, the horrible, disgusting, wretched man.
            Ellie looked down. Somehow, she grew more beautiful in mournful respect. “I have come to take you away from here. We need to go quickly. Is there anything here that you want to take with you?”
            There was not. She had had a necklace – a tiny hourglass suspended on a chain – that her father had given to her, but her mother made her get rid of it. Absent of the necklace, Tessa suddenly came to realize that there was nothing in the house that she wanted to keep.
            “All right, stay close, and don’t look at anything until we’re out of the house.”
            Ellie shoved the dresser far enough to allow them to exit the room. Somehow the grown woman seemed to have a hard time moving what Tessa had done with ease. The terror she had experienced had given her immense strength. “Now keep your eyes shut. I’ll lead you out.”
            As they passed the living room, Tessa stole a glance. Ellie’s friend, the man with the hood and the high-pitched voice, was standing over a body, holding a bloody knife. The carpet was soaked with crimson, and she could recognize her stepfather’s body by his shoes.
            When the hooded man saw that she was looking, he put the knife down. She had never seen someone so consumed with shame. The man attempted to hide his face, but she had seen him. She wanted to tell him that she did not judge him – that he had done a good thing, but Ellie whisked her away too quickly.
            When they got back to the bakery, Tessa began to hear shouts and sirens. Several blocks away, back where the horrible man’s house was, there was smoke risking into the night air.
            Ellie and Tessa sat at a table in the back room of the bakery. Tessa spoke. “You didn’t kill him for me, did you?”
            Ellie shook her head. “No.”
            “Then why?”
            Ellie took a deep breath. “You and your mother were not the only people he was hurting. It’s… very complicated. I’m sorry that you saw what you saw.”
            She did not mind, though. Tessa did not tell Ellie this that night, but after all the things the man had done, she was glad to see him dead. “You knew my name all along, didn’t you?”
            Ellie nodded. “But if you’d like, I can keep calling you Tessa.”
            “What is your real name?”
            Ellie smiled. “All my names are real. But my friends in the House call me Lotus.”
            “The House? You mean where you live?”
            Ellie laughed. “No, not quite.”
            When Lotus, the hooded man, and Tessa were about to leave town, she decided to look at the horrible man’s house one last time. It was a charred husk. Everything had burned down to the foundation. The only thing left of it was dust.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Rooster in the Rain

            Jaroka walked quickly as the rain poured down. Omlos was a dense city. The entire metropolis existed within a kind of canyon, carved out by the Entraht on its way out into the sea. The canyon was extraordinarily wide, stretching out for several miles in both directions, thus allowing Omlos to still be the largest city in Narcia despite having a physical constraint on its size.
            In the past few centuries, however, even the enormous canyon was not large enough to hold the ever-expanding city, and new neighborhoods opened up above the cliffs. The buildings within were tall enough that, if you were flying high above, you might not even realize there was a canyon there at all.
            She was entering a district that people were beginning to call “The Rooster,” thanks to a large neon rooster that adorned one of the neighborhood’s many “Gentlemen Only” Street Temples. While such an establishment was technically not illegal, these were definitely not the sort of street temples to submit to regulations like disease screening and age verification, and it was fairly well known that the Irons – a rather dangerous gang - had a strong presence here, and probably had a controlling share in many of these establishments.
            Better the Irons than the House.
            Jaroka had her dagger hidden up her sleeve, as usual, in case she was cornered, and she had a pistol tucked into the waistband of her pants, hidden by her rain jacket. The few people who saw her walking by seemed surprised that a woman would be in this district, and she doubted that any of them knew who she was, or so she hoped.
            Yasik’s man was supposedly in the unmarked building next to a restaurant called “Ahmed’s Eatery.” The rain, combined with the harsh light from the streetlamps, did much to accent the warped, half-rotten wood of the door, with its peeling green paint. Jaroka did a sweep, checking to see if anyone had “glanced” over in her direction. The street was empty, except for a bored-looking bouncer taking shelter under an awning outside his bar and a glum-looking young man allowing his hair and clothes to soak.
            Jaroka actually thought the man looked quite handsome, but even if she were not on the run for her life, she doubted he would be all that interested in her, given the neighborhood. Still, he looked too upset to notice anything, and the bouncer looked to be half-asleep. She made a mental note of both of their faces, just in case, and opened the door.
            The stairs creaked and moaned as she climbed them. It was an all-wooden building, seemingly ancient. A single dim bulb, hanging high above the staircase, was the only illumination. Jaroka could barely see where she was stepping. It was not ideal, but then, if Yasik’s man was hiding there, it made sense. It would be far easier to hear intruders coming if they were banging their toes on the stairs.
            When she got to the fourth floor, she examined the doorframe that led into the apartment. There could be a wire, or even just a gossamer string, and opening the door could cause her to die in a quick little blast. If it was enchanted, well, there wasn’t a damned thing she could do about that.
            Satisfied to a reasonable degree, she knocked.
            A voice answered. “Who is it?”
            “Who do you think?”
            “Dagger in the sleeve, gun at the back. Hm, am I missing anything?”
            Jaroka did not bother answering.
            “Well, let’s see them.”
            Jaroka took out the gun and presented it to the peephole, then dropped it to the ground, producing a satisfying clunk. She waited.
            “The blade too,” said the voice.
            “Not on your fucking life.”
            There was a pause, then, finally, “Ok. But we maintain a ten-foot distance as long as you’ve got it. Deal?”
            Jaroka sighed. “Deal.” She wasn’t so bad at throwing the dagger, actually.
            “K, give it five seconds before you come in.” She could hear the door unlocking. She waited the requisite time, and then pushed the door open as she stepped to the side, peering in while exposing as little of herself as she could.
            The man inside was white, with blonde-red hair and wore an old-fashioned sorcerer’s robe. He was holding a revolver in his hand, pointing toward the door.
            “Well, that’s just not fair,” Jaroka quipped.
            The man relaxed slightly. “Dead people play fair. Now, are we going to talk?”
            Jaroka looked down at her gun. It was pretty dead center in the doorway. If she reached for it, she would be exposed. “Ok, let’s talk. Here is fine for me.”
            The man shook his head. “The door should be closed. Tell you what, you kick that gun down the stairs and I’ll lower mine.”
            “Or I could just walk away,” she responded.
            The man cursed under his breath. “Ok, how about I put the safety on?”
            She thought it over. In fairness, he might not actually be planning to shoot her. Yasik’s man might just be very cautious. She would have taken similar precautions. “Deal.”
            She entered the room and closed the door behind her, ready to flick her wrist to activate the device that would pop the dagger into her hand if needs be. It was only now that she got a good look at the man. Somehow, his looks did not seem to add up. It was as if every aspect of his appearance had been chosen separately.
            The apartment was an utter disaster. The place had clearly been abandoned long, long ago, and even the transients had seemed to stay away, as the only foul smells she could detect were mold and rot. There were damp spots on the ceiling where the rain had seeped through the roof. The plaster on the walls had crumbled, and what little wallpaper that had not been torn away was peeling and speckled with brown growth.
            The room itself was illuminated by a single bare light bulb that was not attached to anything. It merely floated a couple feet below the ceiling, with no visible source of power.
            “You’re Yasik’s man?”
            The man shook his head. “No. I’m Yasik.”
            She’d been contacted through a friend of a friend, who said that someone named Yasik was trying to hook up a Retron thief with herself. Supposedly, at least as far as it went to Yasik, everything seemed to check out. And here he was, in the flesh, apparently. “Prove it.”
            The man shrugged. “Very well.”
            Before her eyes, his body moved and shifted, and suddenly the white man with red-blonde hair became a short, red-skinned Arizradnan with salt-and-pepper hair. “Satisfied?”
            Jaroka nodded. He could not be the only one who could do such a thing, but short of showing an ID (which she was sure he was not foolish enough to bring,) he had done all he could to prove himself to be who he claimed. “I thought your man was going to meet with me.”
            “She was. Very talented operative, one of the best, really. I found her in her apartment, bled to death in the bathtub. Please tell me that wasn’t you.”
            “It wasn’t me.”
            “Good. I’d be obligated to kill you in a very painful manner if that were the case.”
            “You chose to meet with me, though?”
            “I made a promise. This whole thing was supposed to be a favor for a friend, but I’m beginning to think it was a bad idea. Still, in for a penny, in for a pound, right?”
            Jaroka did not recognize the saying, but she nodded nonetheless.
            “Royal Rookery’s looking for you. Thief going by Valerie Justinian – not her real name - wants to meet up. She’s offering you protection if you come with her back to Retrein.”
            “Justinian? She’s not Rookery. She’s with the House.”
            Yasik laughed. “Bullshit. If she’s with the House, then I’m an admiral for the Red Sails. What makes you think she’s House?”
            “I’ve been on the run from them for a good long while now. She’s got to be the latest Agent to come for me.”
            Yasik nodded. “Ok, that, or she’s with the Royal Rookery. Look, take this for whatever you think it’s worth, but we’ve got a detailed dossier on her dating back to her kindergarten class. She’s Rookery all the way.”
            “She could be a mole. Maybe she’s in the Rookery, but she could be House underneath.”
            “Not this one. I’m certain of it. Trust me.”
            Jaroka scoffed at this. “I don’t trust anyone. And I just met you.”
            Yasik rubbed his eyes. “Fair enough. Don’t trust me. I’ll just relay this message. She wants a meeting at noon two days…” he stopped himself. “Oh, no. Sorry, past midnight. Tomorrow, the 18th, at the Café de l’Hesaie. She will be wearing a blue shirt and a black jacket if it rains.”
            “So she just wants to sit down and talk it out. They’ll get you out of the country and into the protection of her immortal highness”
            She committed the time and location to memory. It was a bit exposed, but crowded enough to make a sniper’s job very, very tough. “Thanks for the message.”
            For a moment, she considered killing him, just to be safe, but she reassessed the room, and decided the risk was too high. Yasik had never lowered his gun all the way, and clearly was prepared to fire it at a moment’s notice. Also, given the light bulb and the transformation, the man was clearly practiced in the arcane. It did not make him invincible, but it would certainly complicate matters if things turned violent.
            “Right. Time to leave this hellhole.” Yasik held up his free hand to allow his sleeve to roll away. There was a wrist-watch-like contraption there with a globe of white, swirling fluid. He twisted a gear with his mouth, and just like that, he faded from view.
            Jaroka could only just see the distortion of his invisibility spell as he swiftly passed by her, leaving the room. Jaroka waited to be sure he’d gone, and bent down to pick up her gun.
            Who was that?
            She looked around the room, her eyes darting left and right. For a moment, she had been sure that there was someone else in the room – someone who had been watching the entire exchange. She sniffed at the air. There was something odd, like a shift in the rancidness. She could not quite put her finger on it, except that it smelled almost like coffee. In a moment, the smell seemed to go away – or rather, return to the mold and rot.
            She could feel her heart racing, and each breath seemed to rattle her chest.
            Noon. The 18th. Café d l’Hesaie.
            She would have to stop running eventually. She thought it would be preferable to do so while still drawing breath.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)